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It's a chilly day at the Lab, Costa Mesa's über-hip "anti-mall." It's the kind of place where people spend $30 on cotton T-shirts emblazoned with line drawings of birds. Amid well-heeled young couples strolling by, lattes in hand, and foodies munching on empanadas pulse the synthy rhythms of avant-garde industrial band Ashra, courtesy of a 12-inch platter of black polyvinyl chloride spinning at 33.3 rpms on a nearby turntable.
Located stage left of Urban Outfitters' towering glass doors is a small relic of the past—a baby-blue, chrome-trimmed 1957 Kenskill camper trailer. It's where local bluesman/head-banger/entrepreneur Parker Macy has chosen to house his latest business venture, a record store named Creme Tangerine. After successfully running a small LP stand located across Bristol Street (outside specialty market the Seed), he and his business partner Jonathon Staph seized an opportunity to upgrade.
Macy is just one cog in a wheel of Orange County traders and retailers whose primary ware—vinyl records—is a sonic format many declared dead decades ago. But don't try telling him that.
"This has been so much fun," Macy says, referring to his trailer of records as the 26-year-old draws deep from an American Spirit Orange cigarette. "We may just do a few more of these."
Record stores have been popping up all over Orange County and Long Beach in recent years—despite the economic malaise. Indeed, sales of new records have been on the rise for three consecutive years.
Costa Mesa's Port of Sound Record Shoppe, owned by John Weir, opened a little more than two months ago. That same city's Factory Records was opened by Dave James in April 2010. Fingerprints Records, a Long Beach institution, needed more room to house its collection, so earlier this year , it moved into a 7,200-square-foot space. Fullerton's Burger Records was founded in 2009 and run by three friends from local band Thee Makeout Party!
Then there are the veterans—the independents who battled with chains such as Tower Records, Blockbuster Music, Wherehouse Music and Music Plus; outlasted the competition; and lived on into the post-record-store age: Fullerton's Black Hole Records, Cypress's Bionic Records, Huntington Beach's Vinyl Solution, to name a few.
Why is there such a resurgence in a format that, a decade ago, was declared dead?
Nielsen Soundscan, which tracks record transactions at points of sale, said that while vinyl's numbers dropped significantly after the advent of the CD, people continued to buy them in the 1990s. Between 1995 and 1996, sales of LPs increased from 794,000 to 1.2 million and held steady. Then, in 2005, the bubble burst. Sales of records tumbled to 857,000. They crept back above the 1 million mark in 2008, and last year, vinyl sales reached their highest numbers since the agency started compiling data in 1991. About 2.8 million vinyl records were sold in 2010.
"I don't know that we've ever seen a format that's had a resurgence like this," says David Bakula, senior vice president of analytics at Nielsen Entertainment. "Even if you look at year-to-date [figures] this year, the numbers are 30 percent higher than they were this time last year."
So given the finicky nature of vinyl—constant maintenance, proper storage, the twin scourges of direct sunlight and dust, as well as quests for replacement parts for turntables—why would young people cheat on their iPods and computers? Anyone familiar with hipster culture knows that the lack of practicality in a thing is often inversely proportional to its hipness quotient (see fixed-gear bicycles, meticulously coifed handlebar mustaches or elaborately pretentious tattoos featuring Paul Klee paintings). Vinyl has integrity.
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Macy's tousled waves of blond hair drape over his shoulders and frame a shirt with T. Rex's Marc Bolan on the front. He sports a laid-back demeanor and is given to referring to people he barely knows as "brother."
He has just returned from Riverside, where he purchased a collection of almost 1,000 used LPs, which sit in scattered piles behind him on a large, square chaise longue alongside a cardboard box, flaps opened to reveal rows of thin cardboard spines embossed with titles such as Breakfast In America, Off the Wall and Bad.
Inside the cramped trailer, taller shoppers dip their heads to clear the low ceiling. The space emanates the smell of new wood, the result of a recent remodel. A sign near the door beckons customers to wander into where the "good stuff" is. Folks run their fingers along the tops of sleeves, ticking them back like pages in a flip book. There are copies of Miles Davis' fusion-masterpiece Bitches Brew, Birth of the Cool, Harry Nilsson's Aerial Ballet, as well as a clear vinyl bootleg of the Beatles' Yellow Matter Custard. There's also a section dedicated to odd titles such as The Bible for Children, John Wayne Loves America and an entire lesson on how to learn Morse code.
Outside, Macy sits at a humming Smith Corona Electra 120 typewriter. He stabs at the keys, smacking numbers onto circular stickers used as price tags—no fancy computerized inventory system or, for that matter, a steady crew of employees here. Macy instead relies on help from his friends. He's the first to admit he hasn't perfected a system.